President Obama’s public declaration of support for Gay Marriage has been called many things by pundits, supporters, and opponents alike; political calculation, foot-dragging, brave, incendiary, too slow, not comprehensive enough, too little too late. Of the many responses towards President Obama, the most frustrating charge has come from circles within the historically Black Church: betrayal.
The President has always supported civil unions for committed gay couples and he has pretty consistently talked about his thoughts on this subject as “evolving”. For me, he was always moving in this direction, it was only a matter of time before he got there. While the timing of the announcement comes as a bit of a surprise (thank you Joe Biden), the announcement itself ought not to shock many. But it has clearly shocked the “Black Church”.
Pastor Jamal Bryant of the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, suggested on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, that President Obama “better be in some black churches real soon clapping his hands, singing Amazing Grace.” Pastor Bryant believes that Black voter apathy may become an issue because of the President’s “evolution” and he is potentially correct. Yet, there is a troubling underlying subtext to his comments. He is essentially saying that the President needs to prove he is still one of us (i.e. still Black and religious) in order to secure Black voter turnout. I disagree. The President does not need to perform in some Black churches. He simply needs to make the case that his support of same-gender civil marriage is not about religion, it is about equality.
Sacramental marriage within one’s religious tradition is not at stake in the public debate about civil, state-recognized marriage. Churches can bless and call sacred whatever they want. Churches do not have to perform any marriage, let alone a gay marriage if they do not want to. It seems to me that those who oppose gay civil marriage on religious grounds are simply trying to use civil marriage as a barrier to defend against the hard conversations necessary within their own religious communities about the existence, silencing, and possible exploitation (specifically in the Black Church context) of gay members within those communities. And I say this as an insider of said religious communities.
Regardless of one’s theological view of homosexual activity, one ought to be able to see the humanity in all people. If the Black church can see the humanity of the impoverished, the incarcerated, the convicted felon who has served his/her debt to society, and the like, why can we not see the need for broader civil society to fully and equally recognize the unions of all monogamously committed couples?